School financing vagaries show America's real values

Saturday, December 23, 2006 at 04:50 PM

Among the many absurdities that keep the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave from being the Land of the Fair is financing of schools.

The right end of the political spectrum doesn't like public schools much, so their alleged concern for educating our children tends to focus on devices that weaken public schools, notably vouchers that would ostensibly let students attend private schools at public expense.

But the problem of poor education is literally that: trying to get an education where the school district is poor.

Take this description of Vermont's conundrum from David Goodman, in a 1999 article in Mother Jones magazine:

Vermont schools in 1997 offered a case study in inequality. Under a system dating back to the 19th century, school funding was primarily derived from local property taxes. Property-rich towns such as Winhall, near the Stratton ski resort, were spending nearly $12,000 per year on each K-12 student -- almost double the statewide average -- while enjoying a tax rate of 30 cents per $100 of the assessed value of a home ($300 yearly on a $100,000 home). Meanwhile, the rural community of East Haven could muster only $5,800 per pupil, though the tax on a $100,000 home there was nearly $2,000. It was a topsy-turvy world: Towns boasting expensive homes and large businesses had the lowest tax rates, while rural towns with modest homes had to levy astronomical taxes to raise enough money to run their schools.

Is there really any justification for funding of schools to be at the whim of fate?  Are we a "United" states or not?  Are we a single society or not?

To hell with school vouchers.  Not only do they destroy public schools and lend financial support to ideas and practices that should not be publicly supported, but they can't possibly accommodate all kids currently in public schools. The number of available slots in private schools is a very small fraction of the number of kids in public school.

Where in the hell is the sense of fairness and pride in opportunity that we supposedly believe in?  How hard would it be to institute a nationwide system of school funding that actually made our public schools approximately equal?

Until we manage to really make our public schools a public resource, and to give all our kids something resembling an equal opportunity, all our proud speeches about level playing fields and belief in "meritocracy are nothing more than shallow covers for our real belief: that our American kids should have better schools and better opportunities than their American kids.

And come to think of it, a really fair school financing system would also go a long way to end the destructive practice of affluent parents moving from the cities to the suburbs to take advantage of the better financing of suburban schools (which does away with the need for those affluent parents to spend even more money on private schools).